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Director Peter Weir talks about "Truman."

By Ray Pride

JUNE 8, 1998: 

Tuning into the mythic "Truman Show"

Peter Weir is a director of rare modesty and patience, taking his sweet time to craft such films as "Witness" and "Dead Poets Society." The Australia-born director hadn't made a film since 1993's "Fearless" and was even willing to take an extra year before filming "The Truman Show" to wait for Jim Carrey to become available.

Andrew Niccol's script offers us a man (Carrey) who discovers he is the star of a twenty-four-hour-a-day commentary soap opera that is the most-watched show in television worldwide. Everyone he's ever known and loved is... an actor. Meticulous and masterful, Weir's embodiment of the childish paranoid fantasy - is the whole world watching me? - is unsettling and sad, funny and touching, a sensational original.

Weir got the script in 1995. "It was exactly what I had been looking for, which was sort of terrifying," he says. "I had been reading so many bland scripts or remakes, courtroom dramas, domestic dramas of one kind or another. I kept bashing the people who were sending me these, 'Can't we find something else out there? Send me things that are not working, even, send me things you wouldn't normally send, broken scripts that might have a spark.' So Scott Rudin sent me 'Truman.' At first, it was a be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing, because I thought, how in the hell would I do this? If I do do it, should I do it, it's too hard, it's too difficult, who could play it? It has to be a movie star. But Jim Carrey was interested, and he was a star. The guy who played Truman had to be a star, or else why would [the world] watch the show?"

Weir is also healthily pragmatic about the place of a "Truman Show" in the marketplace. "You have to ask, how to sell it? With [the selling of] big Hollywood movies, everything's become so specific. You must say, it is a comedy, it is a special-effects movie. And this film was all and none of them. It was an original, in other words."

Niccol's scripts for "Gattaca" and "The Truman Show" have reached toward lustrous fable. Even the names strain for myth: in "Gattaca," his genetically inferior overachiever is Freeman. Truman Burbank, a "true man" invented by television, bears the surname of the California 'burb where much of television is committed. Weir creates a world that blanches with the horror of sunlight, a false utopia where every corner is visible to the eye in a Florida resort called Seahaven that is as much soundstage as mall.

"The tools of the director's trade are available to best express the idea inherent in the screenplay. What this story needed was a kind of suffocating paradise. Seahaven was the ultimate holiday resort, the palm trees, the golden sands, the beautiful color of the water and so on. This was essential to what made people [in the story] watch this show. It was a way of life that never really existed. It's idealized. We used Saturday Evening Post covers as inspiration. It is terrifying to have studied this kind of thing and television commercials and sitcoms. What is this life without shadows, no mystery, no subtext, none of the difficulties we face? Those difficulties that are faced are resolved."

Weir is also deft with sound. His films are ones that you also want to hear again. Beyond his proficiency with music, Weir often uses a kind of dead sound in his work, an unusual quality at certain moments that is not precisely dead silence, but a sudden sensation of emptiness conveyed aurally. "That was exactly the intention in this particular case. I love sound, I love it, I adore it, be it music or sound effects in a film. It was necessary in order to create a sense of this soundstage, something Truman had grown up with. Of course you have to construct sound. Using the surround sound, you can do so much more, now that we're free of the mono track. There are certain sounds that our designer, Lee Smith, came up with, which were mostly artificially created, 'studio atmos,' a presence with a slightly eerie edge. A sense almost that it's hollow, y'know, which gives the word 'hollow' a lovely double meaning there, in the sense that the life he was leading is exactly that."

Weir is cheered by the idea that a movie as odd as "The Truman Show" can still be made, but he's not entirely optimistic. "The craft of filmmaking is in danger of disappearing. Many films you see today are simply concepts vaguely realized with a lot of noise. It's rare to find a well-crafted film today. I'm not talking about pretty shots, but a really deep understanding of the film narrative. Still, there's not one way to put it all together."

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